Anyone who sweats as much as I do (which is... a lot) likely knows that finding breathable fabrics is critical to ensuring you won't be stuck walking around all day with sweat spots all over your shirt. Having spent a significant portion of my life trying to figure out which potential shirt purchases are sweat-proof and which will have my arms pinned to my sides, I pretty much hold an encyclopedia of knowledge on breathable fabrics.
What makes a fabric breathable?
Breathable fabrics are those that don’t stifle your body heat. “The evaporation of the body moisture from the skin to the outside atmosphere is what makes a fabric breathable so that body heat is not trapped inside the garment,” explains the Joann Fabric Fabric sourcing team. (Pro tip: Looser garments tend to be more breathable than more form-fitting ones.)
What is moisture-wicking fabric?
Oftentimes folks get breathable confused with moisture-wicking. According to the Joann Fabric sourcing team, moisture-wicking fabric absorbs the body’s moisture into the fabric. While some fabrics are naturally moisture-wicking, like cotton, they’re not designed for excessive perspiration. That’s why man-made moisture-wicking fabric has become so prominent in athleisure.
“In order to make [fabric] comfortable under ‘excessive perspiration,’ a quick-dry treatment has to be added (only to man-made fiber fabric) to enhance the fabric performance by quickly releasing the moisture into the atmosphere,” says a Joann spokesperson. These treated garments (often of the spandex variety) tend to be more form-fitting and, as a result, less breathable overall.
What fabric does not show sweat?
Long story short, it depends on the level of perspiration. While breathable natural fiber fabrics are innate sweat-wickers, they’re not necessarily designed to camouflage excessive sweat. Specifically treated, moisture-wicking breathable workout fabric, like polyester and nylon blends, however, can inconspicuously hide sweat lines—hence why some of the world’s most popular sweat-wicking activewear are made with the material.
What are the most breathable fabrics?
Remember those old ads that used to call cotton, "the fabric of our lives"? Well, I like to think it's because of how breathable it is. Since it's a natural fabric, cotton absorbs moisture, which means it won't leave you totally dripping after a long day of wear. Just be sure to stay away from colors that will show sweat, like gray (especially gray), and you'll be able to outfit yourself in literal head-to-toe cotton all summer long. Which is ultimately to say, cotton is the most breathable fabric.
Nothing says "summer is here" like a full linen look, and for good reason. It's easy and breezy, which means it will keep you cool and covered up all at the same time. But beware of Rayon, which looks like linen, but is a cost-effective alternative that won't absorb water the same way real linen does and will leave you uncomfortably sweating. Hard.
There's a reason why everyone has at least one favorite summer dress made out of jersey (I personally have, like, six of them), and why sports teams opt for the fabric as their go-to. It's made from either cotton or a cotton-polyester blend, and while it can be slightly heavier than its cousin cotton, it still maintains some of the same breathability.
Chambray might look vaguely like denim, but it’s actually made of ultra-lightweight cotton. As such, it’s known to be on par with linen in terms of breathability.
Derived from plants, rayon is an ultra-thin man-made material that’s known for its cool, breezy appeal. No wonder so many summer dresses are made with the fabric.
A type of rayon, viscose is known to be very breathable. Part of what makes viscose so breathable is its ultra-thin fibers. Unfortunately, said fibers are very delicate and can’t withstand washing, so these garments do require more care than other breathable fabrics on our list. Still, viscose garments are aplenty—and they’re gorgeous—so it’s still a fabric worth considering if a cool, breezy fit is top of mind.
Given its natural origin, bamboo is thought to be quite cooling—hence why so many sheets are made with the fabric now. That said, shoppers across the web have debated its coolness in comparison to cotton, with the conclusion that cotton still reigns supreme.
Made of cotton, muslin is a very breathable fabric—especially since it's known for its notably looser weave. Thanks to the more delicate nature of the fabric, it’s important to be especially gentle while washing it.
What are the least breathable fabrics?
Silk may be lightweight and comfortable, but if you drip even a drop of sweat onto the fabric... Silk itself might not make you sweat, but it is guaranteed to showcase sweat stains.
Polyester is not breathable, like, at all. It's moisture-resistant, which means you'll be walking around with uncomfy moisture puddles between you and your shirt all day long. And that's going to be a "no" from me. The one exception is if the polyester has been treated to be moisture-wicking, which is often the case for breathable bras and activewear.
If you've ever made the mistake of putting on a pair of jeans to walk around New York City in the middle of July, you know that "denim" and "breathability" are not exactly synonyms. Denim, by nature, is a heavy fabric, so it traps in sweat which can lead to chafing. Of course, there are different weights of denim, so look for something on the lighter side if you can't bear the idea of giving up your go-to jeans-and-a-tee look during the warmer months. Or, opt for chambray, which looks like denim but is woven in a way that makes it feel more lightweight.
Ok, this one's a little confusing. Spandex is not at all breathable, but it is "moisture-wicking," which means that it won't show sweat (even though it might help cause it). So while you may not want to choose spandex for, say, sitting on the beach for the day, it's definitely one of your best bets if you don't want to leave the gym with a sweat-shaped ring around your thighs that's visible to everyone in the parking lot.
5. Fleece, Velvet, or Down
Let's just say there's a reason why people put these types of clothes into storage the minute the first signs of spring pop up. These wintry fabrics trap in heat, turning your torso into a convection oven.
6. Merino Wool
Although merino wool is touted for its breathability, it’s still notably heavier than popular breathable summer fabrics. If you’re looking for a fabric that will keep you both warm and cool, merino is a great option for fall and winter. That’s why Allbirds went so far to create its Wool Runners ($110), which are beloved by thousands of shoppers.
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